Kent Jones described John Carpenter as “an analog man in a digital world” and blamed the auteur’s waning popularity (after the one-two punch of Halloween and his masterpiece Assault on Precinct 13) on the way we make allowances for fashion. Jones said in his seminal piece on the director in 1999’s Film Comment: “Whether we like it or not, we attune ourselves to norms and paradigms in filmmaking as they shift like tectonic plates, making unconscious adjustments in our heads about how to watch films and see them in relation to one another.” In short: John Carpenter is too old-school for most people’s tastes. But what does it say about 1981’s Escape from New York that it plays so well after 9/11? The oppressive power of Carpenter’s Scope framing is matched only by his ability to speak to contemporary affairs. Written in 1974, made in 1980, and set in the future of 1997, Escape from New York is timeless activist cinema. Manhattan is now an island prison surrounded by an impenetrable containment wall. Hijacked by the National Liberation Front terrorist group, Air Force One crashes into a building near the World Trade Center. Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell, channeling the mythos of John Wayne) is sent in to rescue the President of the United States and stumbles upon a lawless, hermetic community governed by a pimp named The Duke (Isaac Hayes). If the setup is familiar (an immobile society is penetrated from a paralyzing beyond), so is the windfall (the attack illuminates our reclusive culture’s unaddressed evils). Escape from New York is not as enthralling as the metaphor-rich, Reagan-era They Live and the parallel action isn’t as pronounced or intoxicating as it was in The Fog, but its politics are no less immediate (the constantly shifting alliances, individualism versus collectivism, the distrust of authority and the overriding public relations fiasco that closes the film). It’s difficult to imagine a government in 1997 (let alone 1981) putting this much emphasis on an audio cassette, but that’s more or less the point. With Snake’s final act of subversion, Carpenter heralds the power of analog (Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” anthem) to bring together sparring nations.
- John Carpenter
- John Carpenter, Nick Castle
- Kurt Russell, Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Isaac Hayes, Donald Pleasence, Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins
- Slant is reaching more readers than ever before, but advertising revenue across the Internet is falling fast, hitting independently owned and operated publications like ours the hardest. We’ve watched many of our fellow media sites fall by the way side in recent years, but we’re determined to stick around.
We’ve never asked our readers for financial support before, and we’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees. If you like what we do, however, please consider becoming a Slant patron.
You can also make a one-time donation via PayPal: